The Maltese tiger, also known as the blue tiger, is an alleged blue color morph (color variant) of the tiger (Panthera tigris). Most reported sightings of Maltese tigers occurred among the critically endangered South China tiger population.
However, there are also claims of sightings of blue morphs among populations in Burma and Korea.
Biologists and cryptozoologists believe that if Maltese tigers existed in the past, they are likely extinct today.
The South China tiger
The first alleged Maltese tiger sighting occurred in the early 20th century among the South China tiger population of the Fujian province.
South China tigers (also known as the Amoy tiger) were native to the provinces of southern China, as their name implies.
Experts consider the South China tiger a distinct variety of the subspecies Panthera tigris tigris.
Scientists categorize all tigers known worldwide under the species P. tigris. However, they consider all populations native to mainland Asia to belong to the subspecies P. tigris tigris.
[Note: Based on data from recent research, some experts believe that the different varieties in mainland Asia should be considered separate subspecies.]
The best-known members of the subspecies P. tigris tigris include the Bengal, Siberian, Malayan, and Indochinese tigers. Less-known members of the subspecies were extinct populations, such as the Caspian, Javan, and Bali tigers.
The South China tiger was a member of the subspecies P. tigris tigris because it was a mainland Asian tiger. The South China tiger was native to the southern Chinese provinces of Fujian, Guangdong, Hunan, and Jiangxi province.
However, the last sighting of a South China tiger occurred in the 1980s. Thus, the population is currently considered critically endangered and likely extinct in the wild.
Depletion of the population was likely due to a combination of factors, including human encroachment on their natural habitats and the widespread trade in their fur, known in the international market as Amoy tiger fur.
The Maltese tiger or blue tiger
Tigers have a coat color consisting of dark stripes overlaid on a background of yellowish-orange-to-golden. There are rarer cases of leucistic individuals with black-striped white coats. There are also stripeless white mutants.
[Note: Leucistic animals have a condition called leucism. It is due to a partial loss of pigmentation consequent to defects in the differentiation of pigment cells. Leucism is different from albinism which affects only melanin pigment cells.]
Other known color morphs (color variants) include the pseudo-melanistic tigers with thick black stripes arranged so close together that they obscure the lighter background.
There have been multiple reported sightings of pure black tigers (melanistic tigers) in India, Indonesia, Burma, and Bangladesh, since the 1700s.
Alleged eyewitness descriptions of Maltese tigers claimed they had fur with a pronounced bluish tinge and black or dark gray stripes.
Harry Caldwell, an American from Tennessee, who lived and worked as a Methodist missionary in the Fujian Province in the early 20th century, gave the first description of the Maltese tiger in his 1924 book, Blue Tiger, after an alleged encounter with the animal in 1910.
According to Caldwell, the Maltese tiger was a beautiful animal to behold. He described the blue tiger’s ground color as a “delicate shade of Maltese [grayish-blue color].”
The color transforms into a lighter shade of Maltese (light gray-blue) on the underside. The dark stripes were about as dark and well-defined as a normal tiger’s.
Origin of the term Maltese tiger
The term, Maltese tiger, appears to have been borrowed from “Maltese cat.”
A Maltese cat is any domestic cat with fur that is mostly or entirely a shade of blue, gray, or blue-gray.
The term supposedly originated from the observation that the island of Malta had many domestic cats with the blue-to-grey range of coat color.
The term may be applied to any cat regardless of breed. Some domestic cat breeds, such as the Korat, Chartreux, British Shorthair, and Russian Blue, often produce individuals with a bluish coat.
Genetics of blue coat: Color polymorphism
While the existence of the Maltese tigers remains unconfirmed, there is no known scientific reason why they could not have existed.
Variations in coat color among a population are a form of polymorphism.
Polymorphism refers to the presence of variant forms of a specific gene or genes in a population of plants or animals. The variant genes may or may not be associated with visible physical traits (phenotype).
Color polymorphism is a form of phenotypic variation. Genetic mutations (mutant alleles) explain the existence of color morphs within a given population. We know there are leucistic tigers with white coats. We also know that hyperpigmented tigers with black coats exist.
Maltese bobcats (Lynx rufus) and blue variants of the Canadian lynx (Lynx canadensis) also exist in the wild. Thus, there might have been blue tigers in the past.
The Maltese tiger’s variant coat color was presumably also due to a genetic mutation (mutant alleles).
Sightings and Tales
Most alleged sightings of the Maltese tiger (or blue tigers) were among South China tiger populations. However, because the South China tigers are probably extinct, it is also likely that the alleles (variant or mutant genes) responsible for Maltese tigers–if they ever existed–are also extinct.
Harry R. Caldwell sighting
In his book Blue Tiger published in 1924, the American Methodist missionary Harry R. Caldwell (1876-1970) described an encounter with a Maltese tiger while hunting near Fuzhou in 1910.
Fuzhou (“Foochow”) is the capital city of the Fujian province of China.
Caldwell’s missionary work among the natives encountered resistance. He eventually found an unconventional way to win them over.
After he arrived in Fujian in about 1900, he learned that people living in the rural areas outside Fuzhou lived under a constant threat from tigers.
South China tigers are now a critically endangered species. But in the early 1900s, there was a large population of tigers in the South China provinces. Due to the degradation of their natural habitats associated with human encroachment, the ferocious beasts resorted to sneaking into villages at night to steal livestock.
Some tigers became man-eaters, stalking and ambushing people fetching water from streams. They also attacked herders and farmers in the fields.
Following a series of incidents involving a particularly brazen but elusive man-eating individual, Caldwell took it upon himself to track down the animal.
Fortunately, he had previous hunting experience in the Appalachian mountains. He successfully tracked the beast and killed it. He returned with its carcass on a bamboo pole.
Caldwell’s son, John, memorialized his father’s hunting experiences in China Coast Family (1953).
[Note: The American adventurer and naturalist Roy Chapman Andrews (1884–1960) also described Caldwell’s hunting expeditions in his Camps & Trails in China, published in 1918.]
Caldwell’s blue tiger
Caldwell described his encounter with what he believed to be a blue tiger in a journal entry dated June 15, 1910.
He was out hunting in the morning when he noticed what he first thought was a man in blue crouched on the ground. He realized after a closer look that it was, in fact, a tiger with a blue-tinged shade of coat color.
He raised his gun to shoot the beast, but there were children within range. While changing his position, the animal escaped.
Later in the day, he talked to some villagers about the sighting. They confirmed that they had also seen the “black devils.”
Caldwell’s account was the first reported alleged sighting and description of a Maltese tiger. His account brought blue tigers to the attention of zoologists and cryptozoologists worldwide.
Although experts did not take the account seriously, enthusiasts took it upon themselves to search for the cryptid. The fact that no one ever produced evidence of the existence of the Maltese tiger only helped to harden skepticism about Caldwell’s story.
In Mystery Cats of the World: From Blue Tigers to Exmoor Beasts (1989), the cryptozoologist Karl Shuker reported that an American claimed his father, who served in the Korean War, sighted a Maltese tiger in Korea.
There have been alleged Maltese tiger sightings in Burma. There have been false claims made recently.
For instance, there was excitement in 1964 when some claimed that a blue tiger cub had been born at an Oklahoma zoo. But the cub died prematurely.
Photos of the preserved corpse showed it was a regular tiger cub coat.
|Other Name/s||Maltese Tiger, Blue Tiger|
|Habitat||Countryside, Farmland, Forest|
Where to find
Mystery Cats of the World: From Blue Tigers to Exmoor Beasts, Karl P. N. Shuker, 1989.
Blue Tiger, Harry R. Caldwell (1924).
https://gizmodo.com/could-the-mythical-blue-tiger-actually-exist-1331164937, “Could the mythical blue tiger actually exist?” accessed on February 11, 2023.
https://captivatingcryptids.weebly.com/maltese-blue-tiger.html, “Captivating Cryptids: Maltese ‘Blue’ Tiger,” accessed on February 11, 2023.
https://blog.theaga.org/tigers/, “Will the South China tiger make its way back to the wild again?” accessed on February 11, 2023.
https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1009516/a-roaring-comeback-how-chinas-tigers-returned-from-the-dead, “A Roaring Comeback: How China’s Tigers Returned From the Dead,” accessed on February 11, 2023.
https://nickichenwrites.com/wordpress/tiger-tail-soup/the-great-tiger-hunter-of-fujian/, “The Great Tiger Hunter of Fujian,” accessed on February 11, 2023.
https://utkasianreligions.org/harry-caldwell/, “Asia Religions at UTK: Harry Caldwell,” accessed on February 11, 2023.
https://forfoxsakewildlife.com/2019/02/28/the-rare-blue-bobcat/, “The Rare Blue Bobcat,” accessed on February 11, 2023.
- The Maltese tiger or Blue Tiger is a color variant allegedly sighted in China in the early 1900s. Pic credit: Pixbay
Last modified on April 12th, 2023 at 11:33 pm